Last March, Fatéma Hal, a Moroccan chef who has lived in Paris for more than 30 years, received the François Rabelais award from the Institut de France for her work in promoting the cultural heritage of food.
She is the first woman to be honoured with this distinction that has been previously awarded to such renowned figures as Prince Charles of England and the three-Michelin-star chef Michel Guérard.
Guillaume Crouzet : What does this award mean to you: emotion, excitement, a confirmation of your work?
Fatéma Hal: It's all of those things. At the moment when I received the award, there was a rush of emotions. I was first of all moved, because I come from a modest family and succeeding such prestigious people that have also been honoured with this prize was unimaginable. As for a sense of excitement? I'm not sure about that, but there was certainly a feeling of pride, something I don't see any shame in having. We must never be satisfied, whether it be in friendship, love or work. I don't have a competitive spirit, but I've been putting pressure on myself for over 30 years. I want to be a creative force, even if that means making waves. So, I see this award as a recognition of my work, not a confirmation of it, otherwise I wouldn't have any more to do.
Tell us about how ethnology is at the foundation of your culinary work.
FH : What I'm doing are [ethnological] studies that I hope to apply to the field of cooking in Morocco. This is a country of oral traditions, and I've travelled throughout its provinces for years to find lost recipes and to preserve those that are in danger of disappearing.
GC : So then, are you a guardian of these traditions?
FH : Oh no, not at all! On the contrary, I'm the link. I take that which is old and pass it on to the younger generations. We must not stand still in time. Fortunately, cooking is constantly reinventing itself, but I feel like knowing all the basics and subtleties of Morocco's culinary heritage is essential if we want to take it further later. This is the task that I've assigned myself.
GC : How did this task lead to you opening a restaurant in Paris?
FH : Quite simply, it was because I like for things to be concrete. I wanted to share this cuisine that is sometimes historical, sometimes not, but always authentic. This is why I opened Mansouria in 1985 in a working-class district of Paris, just a stone's throw from the Marché Aligre.
GC : You often say that you're “a cook, not a chef", can you explain?
FH : A cook is a craftsman and a chef is an artist. Pure creation is magnificent and I love to taste it in other people's homes. But what I do is more akin to demonstrating the artisanal nature of cooking.
GC : What links to Morocco do you continue to hold today?
FH : I still maintain strong links. I care deeply for the country and hope to one day see the creation of an authentic Moroccan cooking school. I visit regularly: in Oujda, I still have family there; in Marrakech, I'm a consultant at the restaurant La Cour des Lions where both contemporary cuisine and dishes from the 12th century are served; and I also have dear friends all over the country, from Fez to Casablanca.
GC : Can we make the world a better place through food?
FH : I believe in that more than anything. When we share a meal, even if we disagree, there is still the possibility of dialogue. Cooking is one of the last powerful bonds of humanity. It's a source of exchange, conviviality and thus openness to differences. And then, there is also the aspect of respecting the environment in order to make the world a better place. This can been seen in working with seasonal ingredients and practising "poor people's" cooking that uses every bit of a vegetable, meat or fish. When I serve a couscous of turnip greens at my restaurant, I feel like I'm making the world a better place. And that's a good thing!